Going by the invasion of travel brochures that showcase lesser-trod getaways and itineraries, it’s clear that the average Mumbai traveller is looking beyond plain vanilla vacations. These days, tour operators and travel companies have managed to sell cultural and heritage destinations, particularly in Europe and South America. Images of Barcelona’s stunning Gothic district are fast becoming a popular visual to market such ‘heritage/cultural holidays’, with Peru’s historic Machu Pichu site coming a close second.
While a European vacation often forms the high point of the middle-class majority, never mind the mind-boggling cost of overseas travel, perhaps now, is the time to draw notice to the nouveau and the seasoned traveller, to look within. And, to bring small joy to those who’d rather skip the bandwagon in these Must-Save-Or-Perish times. Believe it or not, but Mumbai can boast of enough sites and sounds to satiate the urge for a different escape.
Mumbai, compared to any other urban Indian centre, is blessed with a mix of architecture and heritage that hasn’t been given its due by our travel gurus and their ilk. Where else can a tourist soak in a mix of Victorian, Gothic and NeoGothic, Neoclassical, and Indo-Saracenic, as well as numerous sub-styles of architecture, reflective of a rich past, blessed with a cosmopolitan, multi-hued fabric? What’s even more fascinating is the Indianisation of some of architectural styles (Bombay Gothic/Indo-Saracenic) and modified plans to counter the city’s humid climate and availability of practical building materials.
Instead, what one reads inside any Mumbai brochure will make the average city lover cringe. One is greeted with the predictable Gateway of India-Hanging Gardens-Elephanta Caves-Dhobi Ghat schedule. Clearly, the average tourist is robbed of what lies beyond the obvious. Tragic. Appalling. Disturbing. Unless he/she takes great pains in their research, with the correct travel guidebooks, or is lucky to have a Mumbai connect, and reads feedback from fellow tourists, chances are that some of our most valuable landmarks run the risk of going unnoticed to a large section of tourists.
Sample a handful of omissions across brochures and city tours: Afghan Church and St Thomas Cathedral (both over 150 years old), Horniman Circle and the Town Hall (heart of the original Fort area), the inner lanes of Bhuleshwar, Kalbadevi and Thakurdwar (thriving examples of Indian enterprise homed in a riot of Indian architectural styles), Bombay High Court, Irani cafes, Art Deco cinemas and structures (the widest stretch, after Miami), Banganga (Indian mythology), the General Post Office (India’'s largest). Not even in-your-face, iconic public buildings like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and the city Municipal Corporation get an informed dekko.
Worse, most of these iconic landmarks are ill-equipped to handle any tourist traffic, be it a handy brochure about the site, or helpful folk (read: in-house guide) who will take visitors on a resourceful walk into the past. Sigh. Compare this with the flood of information that greets the tourist at London’s St Pancras Railway Station, or at one of the countless landmarks. Actually, it’s better if you don’t. One is baffled at this lack of respect made worse by the absence of civic sense as far as our tourist spots are concerned. A silver lining amid a grey skyline is the many dedicated heritage bodies and city groups working steadfastly (and silently) towards creating awareness through walks, sessions and tie-ups with international organisations. Mumbai ought to look closer, and look after its pride and legacy.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY